The Politics of Quackery

The only way that democracy can be made bearable is by developing and cherishing a class of men sufficiently honest and disinterested to challenge the prevailing quacks. No such class has ever appeared in strength in the United States. Thus the business of harassing the quacks devolves upon the newspapers. When they fail in their duty, which is usually, we are at the quacks’ mercy.

-H. L. Mencken, Minority Report

This fall, a book purporting to be “An Extraordinary Examination of the American Electorate” fell like a CARE package for the famished upon the press and professional political community. Its thesis was that voting Americans care more or less exclusively about “the Social Issue"— “a set of public attitudes concerning the more personally frightening aspects of disruptive social change.” It enunciated certain principles which, judging from the reception the book received, were not previously known. “The great majority of the voters in America are unyoung, unpoor, and unblack,” wrote the authors; “they are middle-aged, middle-class, middle-minded.” Further, “the only extreme that is attractive to the large majority of American voters is the extreme center.” Further still, “those politicians who ignore [these] ideas do so at their electoral peril.”

The authors evoked the typical “Middle Voter.” She is “a 47-year-old housewife from the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio, whose husband is a machinist. . . . To know that the lady in Dayton is afraid to walk the streets alone at night, to know that she has a mixed view about blacks and civil rights because before moving to the suburbs she lived in a neighborhood that became all black, to know that her brother-inlaw is a policeman, to know that she does not have the money to move if her new neighborhood deteriorates, to know that she is deeply distressed that her son is going to a community junior college where LSD was found on the campus—to know all this is the beginning of contemporary political wisdom.”

With few exceptions, the press agreed. Here was a book that made everything seem simple at a time of confusion and disorientation. It offered new rules when old ones were crumbling. More accurately, it dusted off the rules of politics circa January, 1968. What a relief! Simple, familiar rules are important to a profession that has to fit things into stories that seem to make sense from day to day; a profession that has had such a rocky time trying to sound as if it knows what’s been happening out there for the last three years.

Best of all, this book fitted right in with the discovery of “Middle America” by our press and politicians. The nagging question about the Middle America business is whether the people who like to talk about it can think of anything to do but talk about it. Talking, of course, is what men of the press and political professions do best. The nice thing for them about this book, The Real Majority,1 by Richard M. Scammon and Ben J. Wattenberg, is that it makes talking about Middle America and its problems actually sound like doing something about them. And it does so in catchy language that blends the style of handbook authoritativeness with that of hortatory urgency.

The Real Majority has been received as if it were a diagnosis of, and remedy for, what ails us. It is more like a manual showing how to rub the angry belly of Middle America to make it feel better. It bears the same relation to politics as quackery does to medicine. Your average quack knows a certain amount of medicine. The question is whether his treatment involves much more than bedside manner. So it is here. Power, the authors explain, comes from positive thinking about the monster that the old “backlash" has grown into: “That Wallace and Goldwater first sounded forth the law-and-order theme has by now become irrelevant.” So much for unpleasant associations. “That ‘law and order’ is now clearly seen as a legitimate demand of the American people is very relevant.” The war in Vietnam, the collapse of reform in America, our government’s apparent inability to do much more than inch its way out of the war abroad and fulminate about violence and protest on the home front-the authors counsel that none of this is important politically except insofar as it relates to the “social turbulence that is presently perceived by American voters.” Thus, change and an understanding of it are less important objectively than adjusting our politics to people’s fear of change.

“Wickedly intelligent analysis,” said John Chancellor in Book World. “A canny inventory of the nation’s political assumptions and vocabulary,” said Time. “Seldom has one book had so instant an impact on political affairs,” wrote Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, offering as an example the decision by Democratic National Committee pharisees who had “pondered” “advance copies” of The Real Majority for a month to expel the village atheist, J. Kenneth Galbraith, from the party’s Democratic Policy Council. The New Republic presented prepublication excerpts from it. The National Review said the authors “know where the votes are, and what issues are really up.” The New Yorker and the Saturday Review praised it. The book began to sell: 20,000 copies in its first month. The New York Times called it “this season’s most talked-about political book” in a front-page story that suggested that President Nixon agreed with it, as evidenced by his courtship of labor leaders. Later, a Times news story entitled “Agnew’s Political Role” reported that The Real Majority was influencing the Vice President’s fall campaign rhetoric: “Among the political advisers accompanying the Vice President [on tour], the phrase ‘Scammon and Wattenberg’ is very much in use.” The White House ordered fifteen copies.

The authors’ intended audience, though, was less Nixon or Agnew than the Democratic Party. They are Democrats of the center themselves. Scammon was director of the U.S. Census Bureau under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and an informal adviser to the Johnson White House staff. Wattenberg served on Johnson’s White House staff, and mentions in the book that he “managed some moonlighting work for Vice President Humphrey during the 1968 campaign.” They implore both major parties to “go to the center,” but feel the Democrats need the advice more than the Republicans: “The Republican right is not nearly as powerful in its milieu as is the Lemming Left2 within the Democratic Party.”

Since 1968, the caretakers of the Democratic Party have found it difficult to respond to the galloping consensus that overtook them at that time: to wit, that the war was a mess, that Johnson was responsible for the mess, and that Humphrey made it worse by trying to pretend it wasn’t there. Scammon and Wattenberg now offer a little help for their friends. They don’t deny that Johnson was in a mess. They do argue that Humphrey, though he appeared “wishywashy in 1968, knew more about how to clean it up than did the McCarthy-Kennedy followings then and now. Humphrey followed the “tough” line in his Minnesota campaign this fall, his statements reffecting the gospel according to Scammon and Wattenberg. (The latter formally joined his staff during the summer.) “Liberals in this country have never been anti-workingman, never, never,” Humphrey said. They had been willing over the years to campaign for unpopular causes; now “they must show the courage to take a popular position. ... I do not intend to let the issue of order in our society... due process in our society be usurped by rightwingers.”

Humphrey, of course, is not the only one. Adlai Stevenson III and Senators Joseph Tydings and Edward Kennedy were notable among liberal Democrats who made gestures to the right this fall. “Democrats Shift to Right On Law and Order Issue,” headlined the New York Times, stating that the origins of the shift were in the marriage of minds among Scammon, Wattenberg, Humphrey, and the men of the Democratic National Committee. Gleeful for once, Joseph Alsop wrote, “ The liberal Democratic scramble to the center is so hasty, even so undignified, that it is extremely comic. But it is a national phenomenon. . . . One may guess that its first impetus came from the horrifying Gallup Poll, showing that a substantial majority actively approved the Kent State shootings. One can be sure, too, that one factor that has helped mightily to turn the scramble into a stampede is an admirable book, The Real Majority, by Richard Scammon and Ben J. Wattenberg.”

In a cover story naming “The Middle Americans” as its “Man and Woman of the Year” last January, Time stated: “Although a hard figure is not possible, the total of Middle Americans probably approaches 100 million, or half of the U.S. population. It’s easy to throw around characterizations when the numbers get so big, and you can be arbitrary, too. Depending on your purpose, you can make Middle America seem now Silent and Forgotten (Richard Nixon); now quite clearly audible: “Asked to define ‘law and order,’ an investment adviser in King of Prussia, Pa., said ‘Get the niggers. Nothing else.’” (Newsweek, “The Troubled American—A Special Report on the White Majority,” October 6, 1969.)

The Real Majority is persuasive in showing that behind those stereotypes are millions of Americans, probably including you and me, who are concerned about the spread of violence in the land to the point of deep fear, and who have felt some degree of despair about the disintegration of American politics in recent years. The authors do, of course keep coming back to their own stereotypes, such as the Dayton lady. But they are plain-spoken and realistic about the universality of fear in America. In this respect it is hard to quarrel with a statement in defense of the book made by Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post, who reviewed it for that paper. Miss Greenfield was critical of liberals who think the book invites racist demagoguery: “It is certainly not a call to the abandonment (as has been charged) of anything especially worth saving,” she wrote, She quotes the authors: “‘Acknowledging that voters are fearful of riots and disorders is not selling out to anything but the truth,’ they contend. I confess I am at a loss to know what much of the fuss is about since it seems to me the price is right.”

But fuss there is. It has to do with the possibility that “going to the center" means abandoning civil liberties and a politics of reason to the merciless furies of the violent left and the reactionary right. The authors, in effect, urge the Democrats to echo Agnew. But if one starts, how does one know when to stop? For now, the echo chamber is administered and controlled by the President and Vice President, whose interest and pleasure it is to exploit the Democrats’ identity crisis to the point of breakdown.

Scammon and Wattenberg themselves speak as it the Democrats had no choice but to go right. After all, that’s what the polls say. They are candid about their reliance on published opinion polls: “These surveys are of immense value,” they write, offering no word of caution about how to read the results, except to note at one point that “the field of attitudinal polling is very much in its infancy.” Here is one of the many kinds of polls the authors offer: a Gallup poll published in June, 1969.

Question: “In general, would you like to see college administrations take a stronger stand on student disorders, or not?”

Yes No No Opinion

94% 3% 3%

This is all very scientific. Someone goes out and asks about 1500 (rarely more than 1800) people whether they oppose violence, and rather a large majority says yes, it does. The authors do not distinguish between this “have you stopped beating your wife?” sort of poll and the more sophisticated studies. In the process they undermine the credibility of the latter. To support the argument that it was “fed-up” law-and-order sentiment rather than antiwar sentiment that brought down Lyndon Johnson in the spring of 1968, the authors leave off Gallup and Harris and turn to the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan, which publishes us findings not in the Daily News but in the American Political Science Review. Scammon and Wattenberg write that these findings “show that three out of five of the McCarthy supporters in New Hampshire believed that the Johnson Administration was wrong on Vietnam because it was not hawkish enough, not because it was too hawkish.”(Their italics.)

The American Political Science Review article does, in fact, suggest that interpretation; it also concludes: “Quite apart from the nature of the leadership elected in 1968. it is obvious to any ‘rational’ politician hoping to maximize votes in 1970 or 1972 that there are several times more votes to be gained by leaning toward Wallace than by leaning toward McCarthy.”

What the Survey Research Center scholars, Scammon and Wattenberg, and the newspaper and political figures who are buying their wares all appear to accept without question is that American politics is bordered on all sides by whatever Yes, No, or Undecided answers to complicated questions pollsters can elicit. The pollsters are, after all, questioning people who are in all likelihood hard put to articulate subtle and conflicting feelings about what troubles them most. How can one produce data to prove the doubtful relevance of polls which show that most people don’t like crime, or are uncomfortable about the horrors related to the war, such as My Lai and Kent State? Common sense tells us something about a poll with findings such as this one by Louis Harris, published in Time on January 12, 1970: “Surprisingly, Americans are not particularly disturbed by the disclosure that U.S troops apparently massacred several hundred South Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. By a substantial 65% to 22%, the public shrugs off My Lai, reasoning that ‘incidents such as this are bound to happen in a war.’” (The shrugs and the “reasoning” courtesy of Louis Harris.)

What is really going on in such an instance? Surely people resist accepting what it is painful for them to accept; that goes for intellectuals as well as for the middle-minded real majority. People who told the Survey Research Center that they supported Eugene McCarthy and wanted to nuke Hanoi (or more typically, one presumes, responded to questions about their views on the war by saying that they wanted to “win or get out” and that it is better to “win” than to “get out”) were people who were trying to deal with contradictions in what they believed, with assaults upon their convictions, with shattered illusions. The Ruskian logic of collective security and peacekeeping as applied to Vietnam, the nation’s faith in its unlimited capacities; these were falling apart in 1968. The important point is not that troubled people who turned to new leadership failed to explain to “scientific” pollsters coherently and logically why they did so. The important point is that, regardless of what they said, those people were ready to follow new leadership. That is how change occurs. Candidates daring to speak the unspeakable, as McCarthy and Kennedy did in 1968, build followings of people who in turn find some way to vote themselves into the future, though they still speak in the language of the past. “Hawks” and “racists” voted for Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Looking for explanations of complexities like those in a poll is like looking for the verdicts of history in a lie detector.

Of course, if you insist on forcing the question because you must have the answer—do you think American troops massacred Vietnamese at My Lai? Are you a hawk or a dove? Who were you for in the streets of Chicago, the kids or the cops? Would you like to see college administrations take a stronger stand on student disorders, or not?—you will get predictable answers which reflect people’s horror of disorder at home, embarrassment abroad, and mayhem all about.

A politics ruled by the pollsters is a politics in which the blind lead the blind. The Real Majority argues that the voters are not blind, but wide awake: awake with fear, and the book I rankly counsels a politics keyed to that fear. It describes the “change in the perceptions that white Americans have of black Americans,” from the “college-educated, articulate, neat” black civil rights activist of a decade ago, integrating Southern lunch counters to the young black of the mid-60s city riots, “grinning . . . excited as at a carnival” and “carrying a television set,” to the rifle-carrying blacks who occupied buildings at Cornell in 1969. The authors write, “It would be wrong to say that these three scenes represent the facts of the recent racial situation in America, but they do represent the perceptions that many Americans had and have. . . .” (My italics.)

Perceptions not based in fact might be called misconceptions. Certainly, there is nothing new about politics dealing in popular misconceptions, nor about politics playing to fear. “Crime frightens,” write the authors. “Young people, when they invade the dean’s office, or destroy themselves with drugs, or destroy a corporate office with a bomb, frighten. Pornography, nudity, promiscuity are perceived to tear away the underpinnings of a moral code, and this, too, is frightening. Dissent that involves street riots frightens. . . . When voters are afraid, they will vote their fears.”

Too true. True also that “the Social Issue,” or whatever you want to call it, is “honestly and legitimately troubling tens of millions of Americans.” The question is, what is to be done in such a situation? Love it or leave it?

The authors try hard to justify Meg Greenfield’s claim that they do not call for the “abandonment of anything worth saving.” That is, they argue that liberals no less than conservatives can and should oppose violent disruption and crime. And they take pains to suggest that liberals can be for law and order without appeasing racism and reaction, or compromising libertarian principle. They write, “That being ‘liberal’ should equate with being soft on mugging or soft on disruption is absurd. In point of fact, being liberal demands a firm stand on freedom from fear in society.” And elsewhere, “Democrats—national Democrats vying for public office, that is - cannot, should not, and will not conduct a campaign with even an undertone of racism. But. . . . Democrats must campaign against crime, against student disruption, against violent black militancy, against riots—and mean it.” The authors provide appropriate scripts:

“Do not say, ‘Well, I don’t agree with the Students for a Democratic Society when they invade a college president’s office, but I can understand their deep sense of frustration.’

“Do say: ‘When students break laws they will be treated as lawbreakers.’

Do not say, ‘Crime is a complicated sociological phenomenon and we’ll never be able to solve the problem until we get at the root causes of poverty and racism.’

Do say, ‘I am going to make our neighborhoods sate again for decent citizens of every color. I am also in favor of job training, eradication of poverty etc., etc.’” (Their italics.)

Something gets a little lost in the shuffling around of these straw men. What was it, freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances? The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures? The authors don’t say that liberals should run out on the Bill of Rights; just stop sounding like . . . Bill-of-Rights liberals. Enlightenment about the causes and treatments of social ills? Oh, well, you can get that in there with the “etc., etc.’s,” after the part where you stomp the Panthers, the Weathermen, and the Vietniks. Franklin Roosevelt began his Administration with the words that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. We are told here that to win, we must fear precisely fear. Adlai Stevenson promised to talk sense to the American people. Here we are told that “the Social Issue” is undiscussable except in terms of generality and obfuscation. Lyndon Johnson vowed that “we shall overcome” racism. Scammon and Wattenberg suggest that I lightened and divided Americans, black and white, find calm and unity in the rhetoric of law and order. (The Real Majority does not discuss the substance of “the Social Issue,” only “perceptions of it, and its rhetoric.)

Polls of people’s fears, and rhetoric built on those findings, can’t get us out of the traps we are in. Interpretations based on their data, as this book is, are not “the beginning of contemporary political wisdom.” They are the politics of getting elected in the age of Agnew and Gallup and the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan: a time of quackery. This is Teddy Roosevelt’s politics of the “bully pulpit” reduced to politics at the bar in the movie Joe. (“Forty-two percent of all liberals are queer,” says Joe, citing a “poll.”)

A politics that has lost or been robbed of its own bearings, and gears itself to the results of opinion polls for lack of any inner vision of its own lacks the ability to see how people’s minds can be changed on the basis of able leadership. Scammon and Wattenberg don’t really “trust the people,” as they righteously claim. They distrust people’s ability to find their way past fear and misconception.

Rending this book, one imagines a book written by influential political insiders in the winter of 1964-1965, analyzing American public opinion about our Vietnam policy. It is not hard to suppose what such a book would have said, on the basis of election results and opinion polls. To begin with, Americans don’t like to be pushed around by Communists, big or small. No matter whether “Communist aggression” in South Vietnam is “perceived” to be directed by big Communists (Russia or China) or small ones (Ho Chi Minh); most Amer icans credit the threatening existence of an international Communist conspiracy. And most “unyoung” voting Americans remember Korea and the loss of China. While they don’t want war, they do want to be “tough” with the Communists. The book might have warned enlightened Democrats to take a tougn stand against the Communists, lest they invite demagogic attack of the sort that befell Harry Truman and Dean Acheson during the Joe McCarthy period. Those in power would have been advised to find a real majority at the center, eschewing the extremes -Wayne Morse to the left, Barry Goldwater to the right. The book would not have spoken much about the situation in South Vietnam itself, or about the possible dangers of American intervention there, save for the obvious “unthinkable” danger: precipitation of a nuclear war with Russia or China. It would have suggested, finally, that a policy of moderately “tough” “peacekeeping” was fully in the tradition of enlightened Democratic Presidents, from Wilson through Roosevelt and Truman to Kennedy.

Lyndon Johnson, author of a definitive statement on his own motivations for following just such a policy—“I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went”3—didn’t do too well with the people whose views he felt he was trusting. Out of the debacle of his calculations about the relationship between American public opinion and the threat to international “law and order” posed by Ho Chi Minh comes the situation in which we now live. For Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg, and for many who accept what they say, that’s all in the realm of complicated facts, as opposed to the allimportant realm of shadows on the wall, and of “perceptions” of those shadows. □

  1. Coward-McCann, $7.95.
  2. They are given to phrases like “anti-establishment hyperliberals,” and one from yesteryear, “Vietniks.”
  3. Tom Wicker, JFK and LBJ: The Influence of Personality Upon Politics.